By Joey Roulette
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A key test of SpaceX’s Mars rocket Starship was automatically aborted on Tuesday just one second before liftoff, postponing the first high-altitude test of a rocket system that billionaire Elon Musk hopes will carry humans on the moon and eventually Mars.
The 16-story-tall Starship prototype was set for liftoff at 4:35 p.m. local time from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch facilities for its first suborbital flight using three of its new Raptor rocket engines. The plan was to reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet before attempting to land on a concrete slab near the launch site.
But an automatic “Raptor abort” was called just as the engines were set to ignite, as heard on a SpaceX live video feed.
Musk, SpaceX’s Chief Executive, had sought to tamp down expectations for the flight, predicting a 30% chance of meeting all test objectives if it cleared the pad.
“With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,” SpaceX said on its website Monday.
SpaceX, which said its test schedule is likely to change, has additional launch opportunities all day Wednesday and Thursday, according to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notices.
Starship, a rocket system standing 394-feet (120.09 m) tall when mated with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is designed to carry satellites, humans and 100 tons of cargo to the moon and Mars. It is the space company’s planned next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle, the center of Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel affordable.
SpaceX has carried out two hop tests this year using rudimentary, single-engine rocket prototypes at its Boca Chica launch site. Those prototypes launched about 500 feet into the air and landed on a concrete slab roughly a minute later.
A successful flight would be a major advance for Starship, putting to the test the rocket’s aerodynamic design at altitudes higher than commercial jetliners typically fly.
Such heights will test how Starship returns to its landing pad, free-falling in a horizontal position after reaching its target altitude and carrying out a “landing flip maneuver” mid-air, before touching down.
SpaceX had originally planned to fly Starship at an altitude of 50,000 feet, but changed the target to 41,000 feet in its launch application with the FAA last week, according to a person familiar with the filing.
SpaceX, which said its launch schedule is likely to change, has launch opportunities all day Wednesday and Thursday should Tuesday’s attempt be delayed, according to filings with the FAA.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Leslie Adler)